August 11, 2019

Blowing it

Coming up - after I read the book - a series of thoughtful and reasoned pieces on Prussia, its rise, its remarkable innovations that are embedded in modern civilization, and its decline and fall, fueled by a propensity to fight wars against the world.  

Norm MacDonald's proposal - that Germany be told "you don't get to be a country no more, on account of you keep attacking...the world" - is what actually happened to Prussia.
It is not often that a great power vanishes into thin air overnight, but that is exactly what happened to Prussia. With the stroke of a pen, a state that had stood at the center of European politics for centuries was abruptly ordered off the stage of history, dismissed as “a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany” by Law No. 46 of the Allied Control Council, signed on Feb. 25, 1947.  - NYT

There is something enchanting about what could have been, about lost opportunities.  So often we don't realize until later that what we took for granted, what we undervalued, was rare treasure.  

L-R: MVP, MVP (somewhere else), MVP and 2x Champion (somewhere else)

So it is with Empire.  Let's say you're setting up to play a game of Civilization, but in real life.  You want to lead your people to world domination happiness and prosperity.  What do you need?  A few prerequisites:

- A secure base
- Abundant natural resources
- A well-developed industrial base
- Strong trade connections
- Brilliant elites
- A culture focused on duty

So, submitted for your approval, the German (Prussian, really) Empire, ca. 1900:

I don't know if you guys are history buffs at all, but this was a pretty nifty operation.  They had everything on the checklist and more.  You could cross the border at Schaffhausen and ride the train a thousand miles, all the way up to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) on the Baltic.  And it's good land out there on the North European Plain, flat and green.

But those central hills and mountains also offered a strong central base, a defensible core, if your leadership wasn't stupid enough to sit like a sitting duck in Berlin when a heavy attack came rolling in from the east.  In the latter stages of World War II, Eisenhower saw that such a relocation could prolong the war, and made preventing it a top priority.

Impressive.  But not quite an empire is it?  Yes, it was big, but so was France.  So was Austria-Hungary...and yes, they'd all fit into Russia:

Whatever the Prussians had, somehow it wasn't enough, and in reaching for more they blew it, blew it in a hundred different ways.  There was confusion in the war plans.  Britannica states that
German plans of conquest [in WW I]... moved to the west and for a simple reason: Germany had become the greatest industrial power. The plans for extending German territory in the Baltic—the only plans with which the Prussian Junkers sympathized—were plans for the benefit of landowners. The plans for controlling southeastern Europe, also of long standing, were the plans of German traders. Both were eclipsed by the ambition of the German magnates of the Ruhr to control the industrial resources of Belgium and of northeastern France.

So...let's just attack all of them.  Possibly a mistake.

Just to mention two other issues:

1) A tendency to underestimate the enemy.  In 1914, says Britannica,
The crisis caught the German statesmen unawares. They had now to answer the question which Bismarck had evaded: Were they to abandon Austria-Hungary, or must they fight for its sake a war against the other great powers? The rulers of Germany determined to stand by Austria-Hungary, but they did not at first appreciate that this was a decision for war. They supposed that a firm line would lead the other powers to give way.

Narrator:  they didn't.

2). The elites' quasi-religious belief in historical determinism.  The Wikipedia entry on von Moltke the Younger, who - as every schoolchild knows - commanded German forces at the outbreak of the First World War, concludes with this fine bit, which is as good an epitaph as any for a country that mistook itself for an empire:
Moltke was a follower of theosophy, which taught that humanity was an endless, unchanging cycle of civilizations rising and falling...  Like many of his colleagues on the German General Staff, he was heavily influenced by Social Darwinism. His view of international relations as merely a struggle for survival led him to believe that the longer the start of the war was delayed the worse things would be for Germany.

And that lovely Prussian palace at Koblenz, reconstructed, sits silent and beautiful overlooking the Rhine, presiding with quiet dignity over an empire that never was.


- "The Dynasty That Never Was" (link)
- "Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947" (link)


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